So reads one of the myriad scrawlings on the inside of a practice room door here at The Herb Alpert School of Music at The California Institute of the Arts. Current and recent CalArtians will surely know the door in question, and probably laugh heartily at me for sweating it enough to warrant a blog entry, even during a Blog Month. Not to be deterred, I forge ahead with my critique anyway. Vandalism and postings are policed rather closely here, no doubt due to things getting out of hand at some point in the recent past (not hard to imagine), but for whatever reason, this door lives a charmed life, perhaps an amnesty gesture of sorts by The Institute towards the many mystically-inclined poor spellers which inhabit it each weekday in search of enlightenment through four-part chorales and species counterpoint. Whatever the reason, the door boasts an ever growing collection of poorly delivered bathroom humor, notably more skillfully executed drawings (this is, after all, an art school) and the occasional attempt at a deep thought, attempts which seldom fail to betray at least a hint of the resentment which inspired them.
I seldom use this room, but each time I do, I'm reminded of the above line, and it bothers me more each time. It was one of the first I noticed, my eyes drawn inexplicably to it from the start despite its relatively plain and small appearance among other monstrosities. At first, I located the crux of my discomfort in the word "systems," being as I am utterly unmoved by most Systems Music, as well as highly suspicious of (if not occasionally fascinated by) serial procedures. In the broader sense, though, it's a more harmless word: almost anything could be a system, including my own open instrumentation templates and letter-and-number based cataloguing (not titling) of works. As time has gone on, I've realized that it is the second half of the statement which is truly dangerous: "...based on what you know."
This is, for one thing, superfluous, and for another, potentially stifling as well. Given the broadest possible meaning of "systems," any you create will inevitably be "based on what you know." (as opposed to...what you don't know?) More importantly, though, "what you know" is not a fixed, bounded concept! You have the ability not only to purposefully choose to expand your knowledge, but to use that which you already possess to guide this search in a way that best serves your objectives. Conversely, I can't help but read this statement as implying causality; in other words, that the time to create your own systems is when you're just sick and tired of learning new stuff, or likewise, that the time to stop learning new stuff is when you decide you want to create your own systems. This reeks of the militant ignorance of pop culture, where "The Beatles didn't read music, so why should I?"* or "Music lessons are for people who are too dumb to figure it out for themselves." Think about it: by the time you are playing in a band, even if you've never had formal study, you've learned something somewhere along the way; by implication then, to claim that you have arrived at that perfect amount of knowledge whereby what you have so far is enough but any more would divest you of your individuality and ruin your work is an awfully big leap. I mean really, how unlikely is it that this very day, right that fucking moment when someone asked you the question, that was the moment when you found the magical balance between thinking and feeling that almost no artist in history has ever found? Come the fuck on people.
Maybe? I don't know. Now it's contrived, but you get my point. It takes more than a door out of view of the authorities and a flash of hatred for virtuosi to tackle this kind of thing. For now, I'm choosing to leave my mark on the blogosphere rather than on the back of a practice room door.
*Is this really true about The Beatles? I'd been led to believe otherwise, but I don't know for sure. BTW, I'm paraphrasing the quote but not fabricating the sentiment; someone (who shall remain nameless) actually expressed this to me once.